Second Life Nabs Organic Chief, Will Brands Return?

To many brands that dabbled in it, the rise and fall of Second Life was a scary blur. It took all of 18 months for Linden Lab’s metaverse to wax-wing its way from geek-chic playground to next-big-thing to has-been. User activity remains arguably strong despite stability issues, with just over a million residents logged in over the past 60 days. But SL is truly dead to many marketers.

Could the virtual world operator possibly hope to patch things up? It may seem that way in light of the surprise hire of Mark Kingdon, longtime CEO of Organic, to run the company. Kingdon insists he was hired for his background in management and experience design, but he said he’d welcome a Second Life brand resurgence. (Read an interview with Kingdon)

“My focus at Second Life is going to be creating a rich and engaging experience for residents,” he said. “If, as a healthy byproduct of that, brands see an opportunity to connect with residents and add to the experience, that’s a great thing.”

Getting to that point will be tough. The final SL campaigns to grab headlines were noteworthy mainly for defining themselves against the grain — which is to say against the desolate car lots and vacant storefronts that came to define brands’ involvement with the metaverse. For instance, a December 2006 launch for iVillage was created to “play against what might be a growing backlash,” said Marc Schiller of ElectricArtists, the agency behind the effort. The publisher organized a “girls night out” inside Second Life, where avatars congregated at an iVillage virtual loft space and visited women-run locales as a group.

Several months later, Schiller reaffirmed that point of view with a decision to take a break from SL deployments. That break has continued to this day. Reached yesterday, Schiller said he couldn’t envision a short-term opportunity for brands in Second Life.

“I think it’s going to be an incredibly uphill battle,” he said. “I certainly don’t think in the near future the environment will… become a vibrant place for brands to be.”

Another bit player in the Second Life brand chronicles is ad consultancy Crayon, which launched in-world in 2006. Greg Verdino, chief strategy officer, noted Organic under Kingdon has a reputation less for advertising than for experience design, where the platform needs help most.

“Linden needs to focus on pressing issues like platform stability and scalability… and faltering interest and usage by even many of the Second Life loyalists, before they can even think about reviving marketer interest in the virtual world,” he said.

Kingdon acknowledged those problems and said one of his big goals is to make “the first hour experience” for new residents comfortable and welcoming.

He takes the reins from Philip Rosedale, who will stay on as chairman. Linden Lab under Rosedale was extremely hands-off with brands that wanted to interact with Second Life. He imposed no restrictions on marketer involvement with the community. Neither did he provide guidelines.

“You were able to build your brand presence… without any interference from the owner of that environment,” said Schiller. “The tricky part was… brands didn’t think about the fact that they had opened up a channel. How was that channel going to be maintained or ended?”

Other virtual worlds and multiplayer online games, especially those reaching kids, have offered more structured approaches. For instance, MTV Networks-owned Neopets, a very different environment, packages branded games for advertisers as well as more integrated experiences like in-world food franchises.

Kingdon says he believes the Internet’s next wave will involve digital interaction in a third dimension, and he said yesterday that conviction is ultimately why he joined the firm. Schiller and other marketers agreed there’s a future for 3D social interactivity, though they doubted Second Life would be the one to provide it, or to integrate brands with it.

Ian Schafer, CEO of digital agency Deep Focus, said the Sony Playstation Home environment, a new metaverse in beta, holds much greater appeal. “It’s the product,” he said. “I’d rather be the marketing guy at Sony’s Playstation Home product than the Second Life product.”

Enid Burns contributed reporting.

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